Wishpond began experimenting with remote work arrangements a few years before the pandemic. This enabled a smooth transition once COVID-19 started to permanently close our downtown Vancouver office and give our employees the freedom to work remotely once the pandemic is over.
Most businesses that were not experimenting or planning on a flexible work arrangement before COVID likely felt like they were pushed into the deep end of the pool and told to learn to swim. As most of the country is in some sort of lockdown, this could be a great time to consider making a move to a permanent remote work arrangement.
In this three-article series, I am going to share some best practices and lessons learned for small businesses (SMB) that may be considering this step. While the tips will be with CEOs in mind, I believe there are important points for anyone in a leadership position.
This first article will focus on the initial steps to determine if permanently closing your office is the right move in the current environment.
Deciding Between Temporarily and Permanently Remote
After experimenting with going remote, before COVID we were still scared of making a permanent transition. However, once the pandemic hit, it became about looking for ways to conserve cash and employees. Once we moved from a place of urgency to being in a normal operating environment most people in our company have enjoyed the change.
As a CEO there are many times when you make decisions independently, this was not one. As soon as it became apparent that this could be the direction for our entire company, I huddled with the board members and other C-level officers to determine if this was the right move. The sanity checks in this process were crucial to ensuring a smooth transition.
When engaging your leadership team, you should analyze your long-term goals and strategy and determine if they can realistically be accomplished without frequent in-person engagement. Next, evaluate current processes, technologies, and communication channels to see how they can support productivity and collaboration. After this, have an honest look at every key business function and determine if goals and KPIs would need to be adjusted or new metrics created to measure success.
Next, make a list of red flags that could indicate that your business made the wrong move and should consider a combination of in-person and remote option or full return to an office. For Wishpond it was as simple as determining if results were being delivered. Companies need to move away from measuring if an employee arrives and leaves on time. Instead, they should be concerned with goal attainment.
Check Your Company Pulse
Once we made the transition, we conducted a few surveys asking if employees would like to stay remote, and the overwhelming response was very positive. This made our leadership team realize that we did not have to try to enforce the change, but that it became an added benefit of working for Wishpond.
When I founded the company 12 years ago, becoming a fully remote company was not part of the plan. In today’s world this type of benefit is the future of business and not something that companies will be able to get away with not offering if they want to attract and retain top talent. In fact, the response has been so positive that if we were to announce that our company was moving back into an office, I would be concerned that we would lose employees since we have become so accustomed to it.
This is not to say that there are not a few people that miss going into an office. From my estimates, I believe there would be up to 20% of our company that would go back into an office environment. However, this does not mean a business has to have a large office with a multi-year lease where most of the space will be vacant. This is a waste of money that can be used to scale your business or preserve cash.
The Losses You Cannot Replace
You need to realize that there will be things that you will miss and employee experiences that you cannot get back. For us, onboarding has been likely the biggest thing that we miss. There is no ability to meet a new employee at the door, give them a tour around the office, or take them for a welcome lunch. As the CEO of a SaaS SMB company, I would often welcome new employees myself.
However, other areas of employee engagement can be transferred like weekly team meetings or town halls. Before COVID, I would host an in-person, around-the-horn meeting on Friday and it was a great morale booster. While some employees were already remote, the majority of our employees came in person; now this meeting is completely on Zoom. Another thing that I would recommend is for managers and other key collaborators to have weekly 1:1 meetings so there is some interaction and alignment around key goals.
Once we made the change thankfully there was no impact on our customer relationships. Our growth has been achieved already by using Zoom and our clients only care if results are being delivered.
If you decide to make this permanent move, you should have realistic expectations that there could be very rare circumstances where 2-3% of your employees may be the kind that may want to cut corners if they are not watched. However, I believe most people want to do good work, most people are serious about their job, most people are disciplined enough to do the work and achieve goals, and I believe most people will be unhappy if they are not doing good work.
The last year has taught us to be prepared that circumstances change. Before COVID, we signed a new lease on a larger office space expecting 100 people would regularly be in the office. At most, we had 40-45 people there and this left us paying for a bigger space when a good portion of our team members were not in downtown Vancouver. Long-term leases lock companies in as opposed to smaller offices or co-working spaces. In today’s world, freedom, flexibility, and adaptability are the trifecta.
In the next article, I will cover how to scale for long-term growth while maintaining positive morale and collaboration especially amongst product development teams in a remote environment.
Ali Tajskandar is the Founder and CEO of Wishpond Technologies.